I have been learning, more and more, how greatly morality can
be strengthened by the solid principles of true philosophy; which is why I have
lately been studying them more intensively, and have started on some quite new
trains of thought’ (New Essays, 1.1: RB 71)
This paper examines the role of minute
and confused perceptions, insensible inclinations and confused desires, and the
corresponding motions of gross and minuscule bodies in relation to moral
freedom. All are essential for the possibility of acting morally in the world.
Insensible perceptions and appetitions are required for feelings of pain and of
pleasure, while confused and insensible perceptions, as well as our organic
bodies, are needed in order to locate us in relation to the rest of the world.
Although this limitation or passivity is a consequence of the inevitability of
metaphysical evil, it is turned to good use in Leibniz’s account of moral
freedom. The passivity of finite rational beings is shown to be necessary if
these beings are to be free and morally responsible.
All the same, these same features do
limit freedom. For instance, our passivity prevents us from adequately and
distinctly perceiving the true good. Choosing only the apparent goods, we often
choose false goods and sin results. But if our passivity is grounded in
necessary metaphysical evil, it is beyond our power to have chosen otherwise.
Having no control over the degree of passivity in us, and thus no control over
our lack of knowledge, we cannot justifiably be held responsible for acts
committed through an erroneous perception of what is good.
In order to retain the possibility of
moral evil, Leibniz proposes that we can attain some control over the degree of
passivity in us through education and by practising living virtuously so that
such a way of life becomes habitual. Through educating ourselves and through
consciously developing habits of virtuous living, we can increase our activity,
and thereby increase the distinctness of our perceptions, the power of our will
and the self-motivated motion of our bodies’ motions. By these means we can gain
conscious control over ourselves, increasing our knowledge of the good and our
power to choose it. We can educate and condition ourselves to take notice of,
and be guided by, inclining reasons towards the good. We can develop ways of
living that encourage the recognition of true goods and the will to move in
Finally, however, I argue that these
ploys, despite their obvious benefits, are not enough to solve the problems
faced by Leibniz’s account of human freedom. The paper focuses on comments
Leibniz makes in the New Essays, particularly Book 2, chapters 20 and 21.